Ecosistema/Biodiversidad, Sustainable Suits

Giant Tortoise Fossils expose recent Climate Change in DR

Lee en español

The biodiversity of Hispaniola island takes these specialists on a new journey in time. Scientists from Dominican Republic, New Zealand and the UK recently described the extinct giant tortoise of the island and presented new ideas on recent climate change in what we know today as DR and Haiti.

In a study published by the journal Zootaxa, fossils of the newly described species named Chelonoidis marcanoi show that the tortoise could have had contact with the first population of the island, in what today is one of the driest areas of Dominican Republic. Which indicates that the south region of the island was semi humid at least 10,000 years ago.

Now that the United States withdraw from contributing to the Green Climate Fund and that the UN invites countries of Latin America and the Caribbean to create public-private initiatives to address the effects of climate change, scientific research guides the anticipation efforts for events that rise from today’s unstable climate.

“The giant tortoise species are not as abundant as the species of other groups of animals, and therefore with less probability of finding a new species. They [the researchers] make important observations about the biogeography of Hispaniola, and the role that the species could have played in arid ecosystems,” said Sixto Incháustegui, a biologist from Jaragua Group on the highlights of the study.

I spoke with Juan Almonte, 51, who is one of the researchers who worked on the study. We had a phone conversation for Voice of America’s Latin America Division on the importance of its findings.

Almonte revisa sedimentos en una cueva de Pedernales, República Dominicana.

Listen to the audio piece in Spanish:

What did we know about giant tortoises on the Hispaniola island before this study was published?

The only thing we knew was on a note made by Professor Eugenio de Jesús Marcano in the years 1968, 1969 on an exploration he did in a cave of Bayaguana.

Bayaguana is on the east side of Dominican Republic, right? In Monte Plata province.

Yes. There he found bones of sloths, and found turtle bones: he found parts of shells, of a femur and of a humerus.

What did you and your colleagues find in Pedernales province, in the southern region of the island?

We, on explorations with the National Museum of Natural History, found bones: we found femurs, humerus and many fragmented shells. From that finding, we began to investigate if there had been any research or findings on giant tortoises 0n the island of Hispaniola. We immediately identified it, because the femur and humerus of a giant tortoise are totally different from the ones of freshwater turtles or sea turtles, and then we saw that we were facing what was previously sought, that had been found in other islands as in Cuba and Puerto Rico, which was giant tortoise here in Hispaniola.

The bones that both you and biologist Marcano recovered were in Dominican territory. Why do you refer to the Hispaniola and not Dominican Republic?

We know that our fauna, both the extinct fauna and the living fauna, have no borders. When we speak about fossil records, we refer more the complete island of Hispaniola as a fauna that has no borders as we now have established. But it is valid to use both: Dominican Republic and Hispaniola.

Juan Almonte es el encargado de la colección de vertebrados fósiles del Museo de Historia Natural de República Dominicana.

Is there a living giant tortoise that looks like the extinct one from Hispaniola? What name have you giving to this tortoise?

The one that I worked with Dr. Samuel Turvey from the London Institute of Zoology and other collaborators is similar to the giant tortoise from the Galapagos islands, but a little smaller. After consultations, we agreed that it was better to honor the memory of Professor Marcano for the work he had left with the awareness that future generations would then describe these species of Geochelones, and it’s called Chelonoidis marcanoi.

What do you consider is the most surprising or innovative aspect of this study?

The most innovative finding is that it demonstrates that the ecosystem was very diverse in that area. It was a humid ecosystem, not dry like it is now; it was wet because turtles do not live in a dry ecosystem, but in semi humid and humid ecosystems where there are large forests and great vegetation. That helps us understand the climate change that happened at that time, and we can assume as certain.

What today is forest could dry up in a coming climate change?

It could be. Although we are now facing a climate change not produced by nature, but by humans, everything can change according to the events that may occur. The island of Hispaniola is a very complex island.

What follows after this study and its findings?

The next steps will be to continue exploring, as we are doing now at the Museum. We have also found other species that fill in the puzzle and tell us how the fauna and flora was composed in the area.

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